Tis the Season: Navigating the Holiday Season While in Recovery
By Ljudmila Petrovic
The holidays are supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but they are often difficult for various reasons. If you currently have an eating disorder or are in recovery, the time of eggnog, gingerbread houses, turkey, and buffets can be more about constant anxiety and triggers than it is a winter wonderland. If your eating disorder has a binging component to it, the normalized gluttony of the holidays can be hugely triggering; if, on the other hand, your eating disorder is restrictive in nature, then a gathering of family and the pressures to eat holiday food can overwhelm you and make you feel scared to take any recovery-based step. Even if you’re well in your recovery, the holidays can be testing for the best of us. Here are some tips for navigating the holidays.
Moderate exercise is always a good idea for feeling healthier. Getting a few runs or yoga classes in during the holidays can be a great way to recharge and get away from the holiday craziness. It's also a good way to cope with the intense feelings that often arise for everyone during the holidays, as well as create some space for you to refocus on your holiday goals.
...but be mindful of why and how much you're doing it.
Exercise is a great way to help navigate the holidays but remember, its alright to skip workouts. It’s also ok to cut down on your exercising. If you're on the treadmill while everyone else is opening presents or building gingerbread houses, you may be slipping into excessive exercise. If you're missing out on festivities and time with your loved ones because you feel like you HAVE to exercise every day or you HAVE to run a certain amount of kilometres in order to grant yourself permission to enjoy Christmas dinner, your exercising might be compulsive.
Remember what's really important.
Your worth is not defined by the number on the scale. There are things about the holidays and about time with your loved ones that cannot be quantified. Take the time and make the effort to focus on spending time with the people who make you feel safe and who make the holidays feel special.
Be honest with yourself
Be honest with yourself about how much you can handle at this stage of your eating disorder or recovery and, if you feel comfortable, be honest with your family and loved ones. If having dessert just isn’t in the cards for you that day, that’s okay.
Eradicate all-or-nothing thinking and instead focus on trying
All-or-nothing thinking among people with disordered eating is common, it’s a world where things are either good or bad, safe or unsafe, allowed or forbidden. Instead of focusing on being “perfect” in your recovery over the holidays, focus on small steps you want to try. Perhaps a big step for you would be to try one new food at Christmas dinner or to not go back for seconds until you have waited for 15 minutes and assessed your hunger. Encouraging yourself to try them all will set you up to feel like you failed. By focusing on the small successes, you get to celebrate along the way.
Be gentle with yourself…and congratulate yourself
If you've never had an eating disorder, having a normal-sized meal isn't a huge deal. But if you’ve been struggling with bingeing, then eating a normal dinner during the holidays is no small feat. Likewise, if you’re prone to restriction, having seconds or having dessert is a big deal. Just as you’ve been your own worst critic throughout your illness, so too can you learn to be your own number one fan.
Don’t forget your self-care!
What do you need to get through the holidays? Do you need to call your therapist, go to a support group, or write in your journal or workbook? Develop a self-care plan and ensure that you prioritize time for doing whatever activity you need to feel well. Take yourself seriously and be sure to schedule in time for you to take care of yourself and to make your needs matter.
Remember that it’s okay to slip up, it’s okay to not feel ready for a certain food, just like it is okay to eat a big meal and not purge of it. Recovery is uncomfortable; just when you’ve incorporated a new healthy habit, it can feel as though another terrifying one is waiting at the next step. Remember how huge it is that you’re even doing this. You are relearning your entire way of life, you are stepping way out of your comfort zones, and you are on a long and difficult journey. The holidays are a triggering time, and often celebrations push us into these very uncomfortable places. It is hard, but knowing your limits and respecting them, and remembering to self-care, can help in overcoming these hurdles and enjoying the holidays.
Ljudmila graduated from SFU, where she studied psychology and gender studies. She lives in Vancouver, BC and is doing her MA in counselling psychology, with the goal of doing women-centred therapy.